More than two decades after the U.S. forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner.

Noriega, 77, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s.

An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists could watch him enter, giving Panamanians what likely was their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.

Authorities sowed confusion at the prison by first wheeling in a person thought to be Noriega in a wheelchair, covering him with what appeared to be a coat so his face could not be seen. But then a convoy arrived about a half hour later, triggering speculation the first person was a decoy.

Interior Minister Roxana Mendez later told the TVN news channel that Noriega was in the second convoy. "We reiterate that we had to safeguard the physical safety of Noreiga," she said.

View from a distance

The director of Panama's prison system, Angel Calderon, eventually gave journalists a view of Noriega from a distance. "The inmate Noriega is there," Calderon said, gesturing toward the former leader who was sitting in a wheelchair next to guards who took him to a part of the prison to check on the possessions he brought with him.

Noriega was wearing a red long sleeve shirt, and Calderon said he was refusing to wear a prison uniform.

The lack of a view of Noriega afforded by the tight security outside the prison frustrated some Panamanians.

"We are disappointed at the excessive security that kept us from seeing the prisoner," said Aurelio Barria, a member of the old opposition to Noriega, who was once known for his snappy military uniforms and nationalistic swagger. "Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell." 

About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega's forces, gathered at the prison's main entrance. One held a sign saying "Justice, Noriega, Killer." Another woman shouted "Die, you wretch! Now you're going to pay for your crimes."

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Noriega has spent more than 20 years in U.S. and French jails for drug trafficking and money laundering. (Associated Press)

Noriega's return came after more than 20 years in U.S. and French prisons for drug trafficking and money laundering. Panama convicted him during his captivity overseas for the slayings of two political opponents in the 1980s.

He was sentenced to 20 years in each case, and Panamanian officials say he would be sent straight to a jail cell upon landing. The ex-general, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners over 70 to serve out their time under house arrest. A doctor was reported to be among the team of Panamanian officials escorting the ex-dictator back to Panama.

Noriega worked for U.S. government

Though other U.S. conflicts have long since pushed him from the spotlight, the 1989 invasion that ousted Noriega was one of the most bitterly debated events of the Cold War's waning years.

Noriega began working with U.S. intelligence when he was a student at a military academy in Peru, said Everett Ellis Briggs, the United States ambassador to Panama from 1982 to 1986.

As he rose in the Panamanian military during the 1970s and 1980s, Noriega co-operated closely with the CIA, helping the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help. He also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.

But Noriega was playing a double game. He also began working with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel and made millions moving cocaine to the United States.

As the Cold War waned, and the U.S. war on drugs gained prominence, Noriega's drug ties became a source of increasing tension. After a U.S. grand jury indicted him on drug charges in 1988, tensions escalated between his forces and U.S. troops stationed around the Panama Canal. A U.S. Marine was killed in one clash. President George H.W. Bush also accused Noriega's men of abusing a U.S. Navy serviceman and his wife.

On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists in fighting that left sections of the city devastated. Twenty-three U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers, and some 200 civilians died in the operation.

Noriega hid in bombed and burned-out neighbourhoods before he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. troops playing loud rock music. He gave up on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges.